I propose to take Questions Nos. 33 and 47 together.
The programme for Government and the progress of my Department's equal opportunities child care programme are confirmation of the Government's commitment to developing and reviewing child care services and to keeping child care at the forefront of its social agenda.
The Deputies will be aware that there have been significant improvements in the provision of supports for the development of child care over the last number of years. Child care was identified as an investment priority under the National Development Plan 2000 — 2006. This was a direct response to the recommendations of the expert working group on child care established under Partnership 2000 to develop a strategy for the development and delivery of child care to support parents in employment, education and training.
My Department has been designated as the lead Department with respect to the development of child care to meet the needs of parents in employment, education and training. The equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP, has an equal opportunities and social inclusion perspective and facilitates the further development and expansion of child care facilities to address the needs of parents in reconciling their child care needs with their participation in employment, education and training.
The EOCP 2000 — 2006 aims to increase by 50% the supply of centre based child care places by programme end. The programme also has a focus on many of the quality issues which were identified in the child care strategy and aims to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of child care services throughout the country. In recognition of the many achievements of the EOCP 2000 — 2006 up to December 2003, the funding for the programme was increased to €449.3 million in spring 2004, from an earlier allocation of €436.7 million. Indeed, Deputies will recall that the original funding set aside in 2000 for the EOCP under the national development plan was €317 million. The Government has been so committed to the need to develop child care that the funding for the EOCP over the period 2000 to 2006 has now increased by 57% to €499.3 million following the recent budget.
Our commitment to the development of the child care sector in Ireland has been reaffirmed by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, in budget 2005. The multi-annual capital envelopes announced that day include the injection of a further €90 million in capital funding into the EOCP over the five years from 2005 to 2009. This will mean an increase of €50 million in the availability of capital under the 2000 — 2006 phase of the EOCP bringing the total funding for the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000 — 2006 to €499.3 million while the remaining tranche of additional capital funding will be spent under the next phase of the EOCP.
The programme provides capital grant assistance to create and enhance new and existing child care facilities, staffing grant assistance to community based not for profit organisations whose child care services have a strong focus on the support of the child care needs of disadvantaged families, and offers supports to the city/ county child care committees, to the national voluntary child care organisations, such as Barnardos, Childminding Ireland, the IPPA and the National Childrens Nursery Association and to others who are working to improve the quality of child care in Ireland.
Total funding committed under the EOCP in the period to end November 2004 amounts to €266.8 million, of which €223 million has been allocated to child care facilities and €43 million to quality improvement measures. This will create 31,973 new child care places and will support 28,442 existing places. Of these, 20,500 new child care places were already in place by June 2004, an increase of 36% in the supply of child care places in four short years. These new places offer parents greater access to child care throughout Ireland as they meet their work and family needs. A significant part of the remaining funding will be required for continuing support to existing projects and for the provision of capital grant assistance for the development of child care facilities in areas where there are gaps in service provision.
Following the provision of additional capital funding in budget 2005, I expect to be in a position to make a significant announcement of capital grant assistance within the next week or so. This will further expand the availability of quality child care places across Ireland.
The above measures relate to the supply of quality child care. I also draw the Deputies' attention to the recommendations of the expert working group regarding the demand side of child care. Government policy in the area of child support aims to provide assistance which will offer real choice to parents and which will benefit all children, whatever care options their parents choose for them. In that context, child benefit is the main fiscal instrument through which support is provided to parents with dependent children, and it provides support to all parents irrespective of income and employment status.
In his Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance announced further increases of €10 per month to €141.60 per month for the first two children and €12 per month to €177.30 per month for third and subsequent child from April 2005. This means that over the period since 1997, monthly child benefit supports have been increased by more than 380%. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents in the care of their children.
Further measures on child care are being provided by the Government in a range of different ways and I have outlined a number of examples for the Deputies' information. In 2001, the Department of Finance allocated €12.7 million capital expenditure for the provision of up to 15 Civil Service crèches for the children of Government employees. Five crèches are in operation and a further crèche is due to open in January 2005. Proposals for additional crèches are being considered.
In March 2001, the IDA launched a scheme to provide for the creation of high quality, workplace child care facilities in IDA Ireland business parks around the country. Four of these have opened, with another under construction and a sixth at contract stage. Since the start of 2002, the city and county enterprise boards have approved funding of over €1.5 million to 150 child care centres across the country. This funding comprises mainly staffing grants, with a small number of capital grants available.
Capital allowances are available for capital expenditure on the construction, extension and refurbishment of a building, which is used for the purpose of providing a pre-school service or similar service. There is also an exemption on the usual benefit in kind provisions for employees who enjoy free or subsidised child care facilities provided by their employers. In such circumstances, the employer must be wholly or partly responsible for both financing and managing the child care facility.
The outcomes of the present programme will be monitored closely to inform the forward planning process in order to support the twin needs of quality child care provision and labour market supports. This Government's record in providing enhanced child care services is without parallel and I am confident that we are moving rapidly to ensure that there are quality services available to parents throughout the country.